One of the effects of the downfall of David Blunkett earlier this year was to illuminate the laxness of the regime governing the ethical conduct of ministers. Mr Blunkett was forced to resign as work and pensions secretary after breaching the ministerial code. He failed to consult the advisory committee on business appointments when taking a private-sector job after his first resignation from the Cabinet last year.
But perhaps the real scandal unearthed in the course of the affair was the feebleness of the powers of the advisory committee itself. It emerged that if Mr Blunkett had consulted the committee at the appropriate time there would have been no official reason for him to resign, despite the fact that his new job represented a pretty clear conflict of interest. Indeed, even if the committee had instructed Mr Blunkett not to accept the post, he would have been free to ignore their instruction.
Last year, Tony Blair set up a review of the future of the appointments committee. That review, released yesterday, recommends a number of modifications to the system. But the Prime Minister has decided to wait until a similar review by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee is published before committing himself to reform.
There is no justification for delay. There are plainly too many overlapping standards commissioners in Westminster and too little scrutiny of the top level of public life. The Committee on Standards in Public Life acts as a general watchdog. And the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards keeps a scrupulous eye on individual MPs. Yet for Cabinet ministers there is only the toothless advisory committee. Ministers are only accountable to the Prime Minister himself with respect to matters of conduct.
Ministers ought to be subject to an independent regulator with clearly defined powers to punish breaches of the ministerial code. If this system is good enough for lowly MPs, why not for Cabinet ministers? At the very least, the code should be policed by an independent body, rather than by the Prime Minister. Mr Blair is resisting this because he believes that it is for him to decide who is fit to be in the Government. He regards it as a question of judgement. But this is the same man who insisted that Mr Blunkett left the Government "with no stain of impropriety against him whatever". When it comes to standards of conduct, the judgement of one man is not sufficient.
In 1997, the Prime Minister promised that sleaze would be banished from public life. But since then we have had a depressing series of abuses. The new head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus O'Donnell, is concerned about declining public trust in the institutions of government. This is a golden opportunity for him - and our prevaricating Prime Minister - to do something about it.Reuse content